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Formidable women of letters

Follow American female writers' path from the Massachusetts Bay

February 15, 2009|Susan Salter Reynolds | Salter Reynolds is a Times staff writer.

A Jury of Her Peers

American Women Writers

From Anne Bradstreet to Annie Proulx;

Elaine Showalter;

Alfred A. Knopf: 608 pp., $30


The title of this, the "first literary history of American women writers ever written," explains Elaine Showalter, comes from a 1917 short story of the same name by a young journalist, Susan Glaspell. The story is based on the murder trial of an Iowa farmwife who strangled her husband after enduring years of his cruelty and abuse. When two of her peers located potentially incriminating evidence, they concealed it to protect the abused woman from "the patriarchal system of the law."

Glaspell died in 1948, all but disappearing from literary history. Her story and its back story have a particular resonance for Showalter. Showalter doesn't much like it when really good writers like Glaspell fall off of the literary map. This means that while much of the book conjures names good readers know, it is happily punctuated by names we've never seen, stories we never knew existed.

Showalter has organized the book by decades, beginning in 1650, when Anne Bradstreet, a settler from England in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, wrote the first book by a woman living in America. Bradstreet's "The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung Up in America" is a collection of poems describing the difficulties and joys of being a settler, wife and mother. It was published in London and required no fewer than 11 testimonials by male friends, family and critics to convince the publisher that it was indeed written by a woman and worthy of publication. It was followed by Mary Rowlandson's 1682 memoir of her abduction by Narragansett Indians, "A True History of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson." It was in this genre, "captivity narratives," that American women first distinguished themselves as writers.

As education became more widespread for women, they branched out into poetry, bestselling fiction and political satire. In 1794, Susanna Rowson's "Charlotte Temple" appeared in America, becoming the first bestselling novel here by a woman and opening the floodgates for other female novelists. By the early 1800s, women entered the publishing industry, editing periodicals with titles like Ladies, Mother and Home, as well as anthologies and annuals.

Though the 1850s are considered a golden age in American letters, with male luminaries like Whitman, Melville, Thoreau, Emerson and Hawthorne, they were also, as Showalter quotes literary historian David S. Reynolds, the "American Woman's Renaissance," influenced to a large degree by the enormous popularity of Charlotte Bronte's "Jane Eyre," published in America in 1848. The increase in "domestic novels" written by women inspired vitriolic reviews and threatened marriages. Nathaniel Hawthorne told his publisher William Ticknor, "Ink-stained women are, without a single exception, detestable." For their part, writers like Harriet Beecher Stowe complained of the many interruptions a woman had to face: "Nothing but deadly determination enables me to ever write -- it is rowing against wind and tide." Women depended on legendary editors such as William Dean Howells and Thomas Wentworth Higginson to take their work seriously and steer them to publication in the Atlantic Monthly, the Century, Harper's and Everyweek.

The mid-19th century was also a renaissance for black women's writing and slave narratives that invigorated a flagging book publishing market that had perhaps seen a surfeit of domestic novels. It's not easy, wrote the literary editor of the New York Times in 1862, "to sit down to a tale of imaginary woes and sorrows while one great wail is going up from the sick and wounded in the swamps and trenches before Richmond." Showalter defends Emily Dickinson's avoidance of the Civil War in her work, pointing out that so much of the poet's writing was about death and loss; that she was constantly undergoing a civil war within herself, against authorities in her life, who were mostly male.

Now and then, Showalter is called upon to untangle the various waves of criticism and revival that works by writers including Dickinson, Sarah Orne Jewett, Edna St. Vincent Millay and Eudora Welty have endured. Her approach in this thorny landscape (feminist criticism can be fierce) is unifying and magnanimous. She brings a perspective to changing literary culture that makes criticism seem not only understandable but also healthy and invigorating, making the work timeless in its ability to weather readers' changing priorities. Dickinson, for example, has been much criticized for her narrow window on life; Jewett and Welty for bourgeois views; and Millay for her self-styled insistence on domesticity.

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